I suppose it’s best to start out explaining to readers how I came to be writing this piece for MOVIES & MANIA. In case you don’t know, I’m a former schlockmeister. It could be that there’s no such thing as a former schlockmeister. Perhaps, it’s like alcoholism. In which case, ‘Hi, I’m Bret. I’m a recovering schlockmeister. Schlockless for twenty years now’.
At my last birthday party, on October 1, 2016, my partner Patrice and I had folks over for a barbecue. On the guest list were Glen Coburn and E.R. Bills. I’d just finished co-editing an anthology of horror tales with E.R. called Road Kill: Texas Horror by Texas Writers (Eakin Press.)
Glen’s an old friend from the mid-80s, when we both directed super cheap movies in Dallas, Texas. (Glen’s famous for Bloodsuckers from Outer Space) As the guys drank beer, E.R. quizzed us about our filmmaking days. He insisted that the stories we were telling should become a book. He’s a more accomplished author than myself, so I take his opinions somewhat seriously.
Before I knew it, I’d committed to the project which I’m calling (at least for now) Texas Schlock: B-Movie Sci-Fi and Horror from the Lone Star State. The book’s getting some nice encouragement on a variety of behind-the- scenes fronts. So, I am moving forward with confidence.
The second week of January 2017, I was working on a chapter about my old friend, Tom Moore, director of Mark of the Witch (1970.) Though I knew Tom back in the early 90s, I had never seen his directorial debut film. I bought a DVD on Amazon and began reading what others had written about the film on the internet. I stumbled onto MOVIES & MANIA.com. While I was there I searched for my 1986 film, The Abomination.
I took a liking to the site. So, this is where young people go to learn about specific horror films? I mused. In my day, we had Michael J. Weldon’s Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film and whatever fanzines were up and running at the moment. Coverage of horror films in any sort of serious way that would be helpful to a researching writer was largely neglected.
Well, I reasoned, I’m writing a book about the cheesy little horror and sci-fi pics from my region. If I want readers to know my book even exists, I’d best start making contact with sites that attract the same readership. I reached out to the owner of MOVIES & MANIA, Adrian J Smith, and offered to write entries about my films.
Fortunately, he responded promptly. No, he didn’t want me writing reviews of my own films. Hmmm. I wonder why? He did, however, ask me to do a piece on the trials of the indie filmmaker in the early days of home video, specifically as regards my experiences with distributors. A piece of cake. That’s something I know a great deal about.
I graduated from Brooks Institute in 1980 and moved from California back to Texas because I wanted a family, but did not want to raise kids in L.A. It took me a few years to arrange the funding for my first feature, Tabloid! We were so happy about making a movie! Hey, check us out! We’re filmmakers! We didn’t look into distribution as carefully as we should’ve. Instead, we thought we’d make the film and worry about that distribution thing later. Which is exactly the sort of thinking that keeps shyster distributors in business.
There have always been crooks in every facet of the film industry, but always more in the distribution racket. Why? Because, if you can get a desperate filmmaker to sign up, you milk their program for whatever it’s worth. Sometimes that’s a little, sometimes it’s a lot. Whatever it is, chances are you will pocket all of it. It’s just too easy to operate with a lack of transparency.
Those guys have no incentive, to be honest with you. By the time you’ve figured out they’re crooked, they’ve signed two more eager young filmmakers. Ripping off the indie filmmaker has always been the rule, not the exception. When I hear stories about honest distributors actually paying filmmakers I always wonder, what’s the missing piece of information? Does the filmmaker have an uncle in the mob? Does the filmmaker have the leverage of some sort over the distributor?
The home video boom changed the way the world accesses and watches movies. Ardent film fans watched one or two a week back before home video. Once VHS found its way into people’s homes, the serious film addict could watch ten movies in a weekend. Probably, in the first year or so of the boom, distributors were more likely to pay filmmakers. So, much money was being made, why not? As market saturation began to set in, it was every man for himself.
I started out wanting to make horror films. None of the distributors we communicated with in the mid-80s wanted horror films. Why? Because cheesy distributors are a bit like short men. They suffer from an inferiority complex. These distributors do not (with rare exceptions) want to be thought of as the cheap movie guys. In the world of disrespected cinema, only one category is lower than horror and that’s adult movies. Most of the distributors who would even return our calls wanted a mediocre action film over a competent, original (but cheap) horror film.
Our first film, Tabloid! was intended to be an offbeat, cult sort of picture. Maybe midnight movie fare. But, we didn’t have the balls to really produce the sort of outrageous film that would’ve raised eyebrows, ala’ John Waters. It was an anthology piece with three stories told by three different writer/directors. My piece was a quirky bit called ‘Barbecue of the Dead’ in which some corpses return from the grave for one final cookout. So, the overall film couldn’t be horror? My piece damn well was going to be!
We talked to everyone in Los Angeles. We started at the top and worked our way down. Ultimately, nobody wanted the film. We eventually signed with an outfit calling themselves Pacific Video. This was basically a couple of salesmen in a converted house, who’d worked for bigger, successful video labels and thought they could strike it rich on their own. They took Tabloid! (no money up front) and promptly stopped returning our calls.
In a bold move, my partner went to their duplication facility in L.A., pretending to be a courier working for Pacific and stole our master back. We wasted months on a deal that did not net us a penny. On the positive side, we licensed the Japanese video rights to JVC for $10,000 and appeared in their catalog right next to a big-budget Star Trek picture. Woohoo! Tabloid! had cost us $112,000.00 to produce. We’d recouped ten grand.
A lot of distributors told us they were making good bread with cheap horror pictures, like re-releases of old Herschell Gordon Lewis titles. What they didn’t tell us was that they were making money because they weren’t splitting receipts with any filmmakers. Based on the best intel we had after hawking Tabloid! unsuccessfully for over a year, we raised money to do two ultra -cheap features; The Abomination and Ozone: The Attack of the Redneck Mutants. Based on the quality of the VHS dubs of old horror films that were selling well, we reasoned there was no reason not to shoot on Super 8mm film stock. The look was right for the genre and hopefully, it was cheap enough to guarantee us a profit.
For The Abomination there was no real script as such, just a twenty-page sheaf of notes with suggested dialog. I was taking the challenge seriously on a few levels … first I wanted it to be a business venture; there was no chance in hell it was going to win any awards, so I saw no sense in composing a real screenplay. I was trying to follow the lead of guys like H.G. Lewis.
Second, I was intent on shooting on schedule, on a budget. I did. Whatever we had in the can after ten days shooting was going to be the film. Period. That’s why the film plays the way it does and has the relentless narration. No doubt I unconsciously pulled that ploy from Larry Buchanan’s It’s Alive!
The only reason I was able to have the career I did (such as it was, based in Fort Worth, Texas) was that I became known as the young guy who delivered, who finished what he started. Dozens of films start each year and never see the light of day. It’s easy to conjure stories on why you were unable to pull it off. For me, rule #1 was finish the picture. That being said, when you try to do a feature for less money than they were spending on local, 30-second car commercials at the time, you WILL inevitably make compromises.
The Abomination was shot in ten days for $10,000. Ozone was shot in twenty-three days for slightly more. It was at this point I realised my partner would continue to take advantage of every situation. On both Tabloid! and the horror double feature, he used every excuse to go over budget and blow the schedule out of the water. I took pride in shooting my films on schedule, under budget. I decided thenceforward, I did not need a partner.
With the finished films under our arms, we returned to L.A. The same people who’d told us to give them gory H.G. Lewis-style horror, now grimaced and said the films were too bloody. Things dragged on for several months and finally, I split with my partner. I had raised all the money for all three features we’d produced, but to facilitate a clean split, I took all rights to Tabloid! and gave him all rights to the horror pictures.
Things were looking pretty dismal, but I was determined not to give up. I contacted Tom Moore at Reel Movies International and asked him point blank; “How much money will you guarantee to pay, on delivery, for a feature film if you approve the script and choose the name talent?” We finally settled on $20,000 to be paid on a film called Highway to Hell, written by Gary Kennemer (son of Russ Marker, director of The Yesterday Machine) and starring Richard Harrison.
Harrison had been a big name in Italian cinema in the 60s. Originally, Gary was going to direct the film. In the middle of filming, his wife left him. He was a wreck. One of the toughest decisions I ever made as a producer, was letting Gary go. He was too emotionally injured to work and I had no way of knowing when he’d be better. I still had a deadline to make, so I cut him loose and took over the rest of the picture myself. I will say this; it probably would’ve been a better picture overall had Gary been able to complete it.
Once we agreed on those terms, I set about shooting on weekends to produce the film for no more than $10,000. I went over budget. It cost $12,000. Still, when I handed the film over I received a check for $20,000 and pocketed an immediate profit of $8,000. Not big business, but a step in the right direction.
About this time, I began reading about Fred Olen Ray in some of the magazines. I watched some of his films and thought to myself, ‘Hey, this guy seems to be a kindred soul. He’s doing the sorts of things I want to do.” So, I contacted him. I wanted to do a horror film naturally. Fred had other ideas. He agreed to give me $18,000 to make a movie with Dan Haggerty. He wanted to call it Macon County War.
Fred spent additional money on the movie after we delivered, but his money would’ve probably been better spent if he’d given us more money for a decent sound mix and other post production items in the first place. I don’t know what he spent “fixing” the sound mix or what he paid Haggerty for three days’ work, but we did the rest for $18,000.
After delivering Macon County War (which eventually became One Man War), I continued to pester him to give me money for a horror film. For a brief time, we talked about building a movie around a clip of stock footage he had, showing John Carradine reading from a big spooky book. He was very protective of that clip! He’d only let me see it via a timecoded VHS dub with no audio! That was it, literally like a minute of footage! He wanted me to build a script around that, but it never came to be.
I had, and still have, a lot of respect for Fred. He was a sharp, hard-working guy who managed to survive in a very tough business. We had a falling out eventually, but now I feel that was more about the pressures we were both under. I had a wife and three kids to support, he had at least one child that I know about. We were both trying to make it in a world of sharks. I’m sure he had as many setbacks as I did, perhaps much more.
There’s a lot of ambivalence when you’re working on the very low end of feature filmmaking. You’ve seen the schlock that came before and you’re not worried about matching it. You’d like to do better, but if no one’s giving you that opportunity, then at the very least you’re going to pocket what you can from the production budget. So, you make compromises. Fred was known, on those early pictures, for making a lot of cavalier compromises. So much so, that others thought he was deliberately trying to make a name for himself as a “bad” director, like Ed Wood, maybe.
When I worked with Gunnar Hansen on Repligator, he talked about this with me. He’d worked with Fred on Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers. He’d seen some of the choices Fred had made and assumed he was building that bad film brand for himself. One day he greeted Fred with, “Morning. How’s Hollywood’s worst director today?” He meant it as a joke. A joke that he thought Fred himself would appreciate. But, it hurt the guy’s feelings. And I think I understand the whole thing very well because his story is pretty much my story.
In ensuing years when I’d read Facebook posts in which it was made clear that Fred had been disowned by his father, that he cared very much for his own son… these things gave me a clearer picture of the man. He’s a regular guy. He’s a damn good schlockmeister. I’m glad to have worked with him.
Fred called his company A.I.P. I think it stood for American Independent Pictures. Like a lot of others, he was trading on the fame and mystique of Sam Arkoff’s old company, where Roger Corman had cut his teeth. Another guy, doing exactly the same thing, was David Winters. Once a famous choreographer, he’d moved on to producing dozens of cheapie action films and basically stealing dozens more from filmmakers who couldn’t get distribution on already-completed pictures.
David’s Action International Pictures was my next stop on my tour of the ‘new poverty row.’ I made a deal to do Armed for Action starring Joe Estevez for $30,000. We shot the movie in seven days in Poolville, Texas. I was blessed to have Randy Moore offer his services in special effects. He basically gave me a bunch of firepower I couldn’t afford to pay for. The film is an obvious cheapie, but for thirty grand and a seven-day schedule, it kicks ass. The acting’s mostly lame, but the explosions and gunfire sold the thing. I followed that up with Blood on the Badge for $40,000, again starring Joe Estevez.
David said he was going to give me a contract to do four films a year, each with a budget of $40,000. What I didn’t know was that his company was in serious trouble. Out of the blue, he asked me to come to Mobile, Alabama as a producer on a fairly big ($850,000) film called Mardi Gras for the Devil, starring Robert Davi and Michael Ironside. The whole deal was bogus.
The original producer had quit because Winters wasn’t sending money when they needed it. The agents and talent were getting pissed. I was brought in to be a sort of fall guy, someone they could blame when Winters finally caught up on payments. Once I saw what was happening I just coasted. I collected my pay of $2,000 a week and made the best of it. There were some really miserable people working on that crew.
An exception was the Key Grip, a guy who did a pretty good impression of Bill Murray, Thomas Fenton. Tom quizzed me about making super cheap pictures and ended up asking me to produce a movie called Striking Point. Tom directed and Chris Mitchum starred as the heavy. The budget was supposed to be $50K.
Tom showed up in Dallas with $35K. He’d been raised in a privileged family. His dad was a higher up in the Kodak company. Basically, he was a spoiled brat. He wanted the world to revolve around him. That was the only film Tom Fenton ever directed, though I understand he works for one of the studios in Hollywood these days.
When the movie Trolls 2 was being posted at Allied + WBS in Dallas, I became friends with the film’s editor, Vanio Amici. Vanio asked me if I’d like to produce a film for Fred Williamson. The next thing I knew Fred called me and came to Dallas to shoot a cheesy action flick called Steele’s Law with a crew I assembled for him. He came back again and did one called Three Days to a Kill. This one co-starred Chuck Connors, Henry Silva and Bo Svenson. By that time, he’d worn out his welcome and as far as I know he never came back to Dallas. That seemed to be his M.O. In any case, I was on to other things.
The guy who shot Tom’s movie Striking Point was an exceptionally talented kid named Tony Brownrigg, son of S.F. “Brownie” Brownrigg who directed Don’t Look in the Basement. Tony and a couple of friends had a company called Open Door Productions in Deep Ellum. They’d made one super cheap feature called Liar and were eager to do more. After they saw how things went on Striking Point, they asked me to produce a movie for them. I gave them a title: Cyberstalker. They wrote a pretty decent screenplay. We shot the picture with Jeffrey Combs of Re-Animator fame. It was eventually retitled The Digital Prophet.
Along the way, I was approached by others. A local martial arts enthusiast who wanted to be the next Steven Seagal, brought me a project called Takedown. Richard Lynch played the bad guy. He did a great job as always.
A used computer salesman named David Stephens approached me about production. He had a huge warehouse facility and wanted to utilize part of it as sound stages. He also had an editing suite. My first project with David was an exploitation documentary called Children of Dracula: Real Interviews with Real Vampires.
Next, we did Time Tracers and Biotech Warrior, followed by the infamous Repligator. Stephens was an ex-military intelligence officer and something of a neo-Nazi. He wanted to do a racist picture called Lebensborn. When I did not rush out and raise money for that, we had a falling out and he did his best to tie the films up indefinitely in legal limbo. He ended up shooting the film, but I never heard of it receiving any distribution. David was the sort of guy who’d say things like, “The only way to salvage the black race is to infuse them with white blood. They’d be unemployable if it wasn’t for McDonalds.” He was a creep.
As David and I were going separate directions, I noticed I’d done four pictures so far that year (1995.) Somewhere I’d read that Roger Corman did five films in a single year. I wanted to do one more film to top off my year. I contacted Corman and told him I was trying to squeeze out one more film for the year because I was trying to match his record. He responded by sending me a script called Street. The original had been produced in L.A. a few years earlier and starred Christina Applegate of Married with Children fame.
We modified the script for Fort Worth locations and shot Rumble in the Streets. This was a virtually identical situation to what Larry Buchanan had found himself in with A.I.P. back in the 60s. History repeats itself! Roger spent a day with us during production. It was a very positive experience all the way around. I think it’s my best picture, especially the never seen ‘director’s cut.’
Roger was happy with the picture and paid me on time! Life was good! We’d done Rumble for $125,000. Roger told me he was going to give me a bigger budget, but he wanted me to shoot on 35mm this time. He offered me $150,000 to do The Protector, starring Lee Majors and Ed Marinaro. A big budget increase! Barely enough to cover the increased film expenses. But, then that’s the sort of thing Roger’s known for, eh? I was just glad to be finally working with one of my schlockmeister idols.
Between the completion of Rumble and the beginning of Protector I was expecting a reasonably good payout from Tom Moore at RMI. He’d made guarantees on several pictures I’d given him to distribute. The guarantees came due in May of 1996. In April of 1996 he filed bankruptcy, but only after building himself a very expensive home in an exclusive part of Dallas with the money that should’ve been paid to myself and other filmmakers.
It’s easy to attack the crooked distributor, and Tom Moore was certainly one of those, but I have to shoulder some of the responsibility as well. More than a year before all this went down, I had lunch with him one day. During the course of the conversation, he expressed admiration for certain family filmmakers – who shall remain nameless here – for apparently filing bankruptcy whenever they were on the verge of having to pay someone. I was forewarned that he was interested in using such underhanded methods to line his own pockets.
After busting my ass to complete five pictures in a year and having most of my money stolen, leaving me with no legal recourse, I decided it was time to bail from the movie business. My personal life was a mess at the same time and for the next couple of years everything I’d worked toward, just fell apart.
That was twenty years ago. For the longest time, I didn’t even want to talk about filmmaking. Now, I don’t think of it all as a tragedy. I think of it as an interesting part of my life. I’m glad I knew and worked with so many talented people. I see clearly that most of the indie filmmakers I knew ended up disappointed, just as I did. And it’s a common story. Virtually all the low-budget guys who put projects together in the 80s and early 90s got ripped off. Probably, that is still true.
I think the ones who make it are the ones who take control of as many aspects of the process as possible. I think the answer is transparency. I admire the “open source” IT gurus in the world and I think we could all take a cue from them. One of the things working against us in those days was that we were all afraid to speak out against the crooks, openly expose them. In that manner, we were complicit in our own failure. Transparency would’ve helped everyone… except for the crooks.
There are more venues for creative output than ever before. The internet has rewritten media history. Whether you’re an author, musician or filmmaker, there are more ways to get your work to an audience than ever before. The problem is still transparency. If you want to succeed, you need to know what’s happening with your work every step of the way.
With the technology as it exists today, transparency on a moment to moment basis is completely possible. There’s really no excuse why transparent processes haven’t been implemented. All the online methods of sales, like Amazon, promise the ability to make your creations available to virtually the entire world. But everything still goes through their proprietary system.
I’m a writer. With the print-on-demand technology, there’s no reason why every sale of my book couldn’t be available to me as data twenty-four seven. So, why is it publishers still report only twice a year and have a ninety-day window, on top of that, in which to provide you with figures and pay you? Only one reason. Because it works in their favour.
I’d encourage young artists, of every sort, to develop ways to seize greater control over sales and distribution of the work they’ve created. Moaning about the potentially corrupt middlemen gets us nowhere. It never has. But, we’ve never been in a better position to shepherd our creations all the way down the path. Technology has provided us with a unique opportunity. Take advantage of it.
Bret McCormick, MOVIES & MANIA © 2017
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